Vivekananda and Thoreau

By C. H. MacLachan

C. H. MacLachlan was a member of the Vedanta Society of New York. He was a former editor of The Long Islander, a journal started by Walt Whitman. Deeply interested in the life of Thoreau, Mr. MacLachlan spent considerable time researching the present article, which appeared in the May, 1967 issue of Prabuddha Bharata as well as the Nov-Dec, 1967 issue of Vedanta and the West.

Years before Swami Vivekananda came to America for the Parliament of Religions, literate Americans had been made familiar with Indian thought by such writers as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Among these the most thoroughgoing by far was Thoreau. He was a profound reader who went to sources and explored them carefully, not satisfied with extracts and quotations as Emerson often was, and not bluffing his way as Whitman so often did.

Were Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman “forerunners” of Vivekananda? The word is often used loosely, but to the extent that each represented Vedantic ideas he can be said to have been a forerunner. Romain Rolland was so much convinced of Whitman’s affinity with Vedanta that he devoted a large part of one chapter in his Life of Vivekananda to comparisons. The far more erudite Thoreau who steeped himself in the Vedas, declared his belief that one wise sentence from the Vedanta was “worth the state of Massachusetts many times over.”

Had Thoreau been alive when the Swami came to America in 1893 it is inevitable that the two would have met sooner or later. For, in spite of striking differences in personality, they would have discovered convictions that were strongly shared.

Thoreau had read extensively in the Vedas and he had been profoundly influenced by what he had read. He loved truth and despised bigotry. He believed in the practice of religion and not in religious attitudes. He excluded no religion and had even urged publishing together the collected scriptures of the world: Hindu, Persian, Hebrew and many others. Many thought him arrogant, but he had depths of humility unsuspected by all but his close friends.

He held the ordinary values of society in contempt. Vivekananda might also have found him a little prickly and standoffish; or even, as Whitman had, disdainful of ordinary people and somewhat egotistical. But the great Indian would have been quick to see beneath the shell that Thoreau presented to the world, and would have found much to admire, much to respect and much to love, as Emerson had. And their writings on many subjects had points of similarity. They would have found themselves often in agreement in spiritual matters.

Thoreau had died thirty years before Vivekananda’s arrival in America, but his writings were not to receive a wide appreciation until after the Swami’s death. Vivekananda must have been much more aware of Whitman, who had died only the year before his arrival. He had read Leaves of Grass and had referred to its author as the “Sannyasin of America.” There is no record that he had even heard of Thoreau.

In personality the two men had little in common. Vivekananda’s personality was commanding, regal. His body was that of an athlete, square-shouldered, broadchested, muscular. He had a great forehead, a strong jaw, and eyes that were the dominant feature of his personality.

They communicated accurately the wide range of his moods, and were equally capable of reflecting his charm and kindness or his anger and scorn. And with these formidable elements he had a voice that superbly complemented the rest of his personality. It has been compared with a violoncello, “grace without violent contrasts, but with deep vibrations that filled both hall and hearts.”1

It was an unforgettable voice, recalled by some devotees as much as half a century after it had been silenced. Seldom can such a personality have made its appearance upon the earth. A traveler in the Himalayas who crossed the Swami’s path during his years as a wandering monk was so overwhelmed by the experience that in amazement he cried, “Shiva!”

Thoreau is all contrast. He was plain in feature and dress, and only five feet seven inches tall. William Dean Howells described him as a “quaint stump figure of a man” who habitually dressed more like a laboring man than a scholar. It was the eyes that enlivened the face. They were blue, deep-set and probing.

We have Emerson’s word for it that he was a penetrating judge of men. “At once glance,” he wrote, “he measured his companion … and saw the limitation and poverty of those he talked with, so that nothing seemed concealed from such terrible eyes.” He could detect hypocrisy in dignified and prosperous persons as readily as in beggars, and with equal scorn.

In his youth and young manhood he must often have been an uncomfortable companion, but in his later years he mellowed so that Emerson found that “his foibles, real or apparent, were fast vanishing in the incessant growth of a spirit so robust and wise, and which effaced its defects with new triumphs.”2

As they were different in personality they were also different in background and purpose. Vivekananda had taken up the spiritual heritage of his Master, Sri Ramakrishna and had accepted the mission to spread his teachings throughout the world. Thoreau tells us in Walden that he wanted to learn what life had to teach “and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Both had great things to say. Each in his own way said them incomparably. Vivekananda lectured and taught, attracting all who came near him with his irresistible magnetism. Thoreau lectured and wrote, his influence growing steadily. Both are still powers in the world today.

The Hindu influence upon Thoreau had gone deep. His first book, A Week On the Concord and Merrimack Rivers published in 1849, devoted the greater part of its long second chapter to an enthusiastic appreciation of the Gita and to other religious and philosophical writings of India. He felt intuitively that the same inner spirit flowed through humanity and its environment alike, and in the Hindus he found this expressed as an article of faith.

In an essay written for the Atlantic Monthly, Thoreau described a pine tree, saying: “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” But this “defiant pantheism” was omitted by Editor James Russell Lowell to Thoreau’s intense indignation.

Thoreau accepted the great religions, often with some expression of scorn for the narrow-minded. “I have no sympathy with the bigotry and ignorance which make transient and partial and puerile distinctions between one man’s faith or form of faith and another’s—as Christian and heathen,” he wrote in his Journal. “I pray to be delivered from narrowness, partiality, exaggeration, bigotry. I like Brahma, Hari, the Great Spirit as well as God.”3

Vivekananda’s acceptance was given with the assurance of the spiritual aristocrat that he was:

I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship them all; I worship God with every one of them … Is God’s book finished or is it still a continuous revelation going on? It is a marvelous book—these Spiritual Revelations of the world. The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain unfolded. . . . We stand in the present, but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past, enjoy the light of the present and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future. Salutation to all the prophets of the past, to all the great ones of the present, and to all that are to come in the future!4

Both men were impressed by virtue rather than by mere professions of virtue. Actions not words. Thoreau found people talking a great deal about doing good, and he said he had tried it fairly and found that it didn’t agree with his constitution. “If I were to preach at all in this strain,” he said, “I should say, rather, set about being good.”5 “If you would convince a man that he does wrong,” he wrote to a friend, “do right. But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see. Let them see.”6

The same earnestness about revealing one’s religion in his life was expressed by Swami Vivekananda:

Those who are really workers and really feel at heart the universal brotherhood of man, do not talk much, do not make little sects for universal brotherhood, but their acts, their movements, their whole life show clearly that they in truth possess the feeling of brotherhood for mankind, that they have love and sympathy for all. They do not speak, they do and they live. This world is too full of blustering talk. We want a little more earnest work and less talk.7

Neither man believed in the ordinary values of society. One of Thoreau’s most quoted comments from Walden concerned this. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote. And again: “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day. . . . He has no time to be anything but a machine.”8

“Karma Yoga,” Vivekananda wrote, “teaches us that the ordinary idea of duty is on a lower plan; nevertheless, all of us have to do our duty. Yet we may see that this particular sense of duty is very often a cause for great misery. Duty becomes a disease with us. . . . It is the bane of human life. . . . Look at these poor slaves to duty! Duty leaves them no time to say prayers, no time to bathe. Duty is ever on them. They go out and work. Duty is on them! It is living a slave’s life, at last dropping down in the street and dying in harness like a horse. This is duty as it is understood.9

Both had an exalted concept of what constituted real duty. “Every man,” Vivekananda said, “should take up his own ideal

and accomplish it. That is a surer way of progress than taking up other men’s ideals, which we can never hope to accomplish. . . . All the men and women, in any society, are not of the same mind, capacity, or of the same power to do things; they must have different ideals, and we have no right to sneer at any ideal. Let every one do the best he can for realizing his own ideal. Nor is it right that I should be judged by your standard, or you by mine…10

Thoreau also believed everyone should perform his or her own duty. “Be resolutely and faithfully what you are,” he wrote in his Journal; “be humbly what you aspire to be. Be sure you give men the best of your wares, though they be poor enough, and the gods will help you lay up a better store for the future. Man’s noblest gift to man is his sincerity, for it embraces his integrity also…” and on another day he wrote: “We are constantly invited to be what we are, as to something worthy and noble. I never waited but for myself to come round; none ever detained me, but I lagged and lagged after myself.”11

Swami Vivekananda believed that any action that makes us go Godward is a good action. “What I am just at this moment,” he said, “is the effect of the sum total of all the impressions of my past life. This is what is meant by character. . . . If a man thinks good thoughts and does good works, the sum total of these impressions will be good; and they in a similar manner, will force him to do good in spite of himself.”12

“Our whole life,” wrote Thoreau, “is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails … the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”13

One would hardly associate humility with either Vivekananda or Thoreau. Vivekananda was tempestuous, at times almost arrogant, especially when he was young. Many of Thoreau’s friends and acquaintances found him prickly, often blunt and even harsh. Yet both reacted against what they considered undeserved praise.

Vivekananda at eighteen protested when Sri Ramakrishna gave him all of the best of a comparison with two outstanding religious leaders. “Sir,” he said, “why do you say such things! People will think you mad. How can you compare the world-renowned Keshab and the saintly Vijay with an insignificant young student like me? Please do not do so again.”

Thoreau attracted admirers to whom he was, as Emerson said, “confessor and prophet.” It was the praise of one of these followers that he disowned in this note of disparagement: “Do not waste your reverence on my attitude. I merely manage to sit where I have dropped. I am sure that my acquaintances mistake me. They ask for my advice on high matters, but they do not know how poorly I am now for hats and shoes. Just as shabby as I am in my outward apparel, ay, and more lamentably shabby, am I in my inward substance. If I should turn myself inside out, my rags and meanness would indeed appear. I am something to him that made me, undoubtedly, but not to any other that he has made.”14

Both men lived steadfastly by truth. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” Thoreau wrote in Walden, and nothing is more certain than the fact that he practiced it throughout his life. When he was a boy he was accused of taking a knife belonging to another boy. “I did not take it,” Henry said, and he was believed. Later the real culprit was found, and Henry then acknowledged that he had known all the time who had taken the knife. But when he was asked why he had not said so at the time, his reply was still the same: “I did not take it.”

His character seems to have been formed from the beginning and was undeviating throughout his life. In 1851 he noted his resolve “to read no book, take no walk, undertake no enterprise, but such as he could endure to give an account of to himself and to live thus deliberately for the most part.”15

“Do what you ought to do,” he wrote in his Journal in 1854. “Why should we ever go abroad, even across the way, to ask a neighbor’s advice? There is a nearer neighbor within us incessantly telling us how we should behave. But we wait for the neighbor without to tell us of some false, easier way.”16

How similar was Vivekananda’s advice given in the lecture “Practical Vedanta,” which although discussed in a different context, had the same meaning:

Our whole life here is to carry this [that all forms of worship lead to God] into practice, but the one great point we gain is that we shall work with satisfaction and contentment, instead of with discontent and dissatisfaction, for we know that Truth is within us, we have It as our birthright, and we have only to manifest It to make It tangible.17

Swami Vivekananda was truthful from his childhood, but his zeal for the truth grew rapidly in his youth. He once remarked that he had always refrained in youth from frightening children with stories of ghosts because he was afraid of telling falsehoods, and he always scolded all he found not doing the same.

“The general people,” Swami Saradananda wrote, “devoid of insight, regarded Narendra’s wonderful self-confidence as arrogance, his boundless vigor as insolence, and his austere love of truth as feigning or as an example of undeveloped intellect. They, it is doubtless, came to that conclusion from his absolute indifference to people’s praise, his plain speaking, his free and unhesitating behavior regarding all matters and, above all, his disdain to conceal anything for fear of anybody.”18

“My Narendra,” Ramakrishna said in the presence of other disciples, “is a coin with no alloy whatsoever; ring it and you will hear the truest sound … he is a true knower of Brahman…”

Sri Ramakrishna, whose prophetic appraisal of Narendra overcame the anxiety and mistrust of the others at Dakshineswar, had predicted: “The day when Naren comes in contact with suffering and misery the pride of his character will melt into a mood of infinite compassion. His strong faith in himself will be an instrument to re-establish in discouraged souls the confidence and faith they have lost …”19

The Master’s forecast proved well-founded when Naren as a pilgrim lived among the dregs of Indian society, sharing the insults and wretchedness of the poor and the rejected. When he learned that a man had died of hunger in Calcutta he sobbed: “O my country! O my country!” And he asked himself, “What have we done, we so-called men of God, what have we done for the masses?”20 Human suffering had the profoundest effect upon his nature, and he would sometimes be so overcome at the discussion of evils and miseries of everyday life that tears would come into his eyes and to hide his feelings he would leave the room.

More of a stoic than the great sannyasin and never eloquent as a lecturer, Thoreau’s influence on his contemporaries was small compared with that of the dynamic Easterner. His compassion was expressed in a different way. He had compassion for suffering humanity, in particular for the four million African-American slaves in the United States. But he took action in his own way, preferring to go to jail rather than support what he regarded as tyranny by paying his poll-tax.

He was driven almost ill by the capture and imprisonment of John Brown and he supported him with words that burned with indignation, in lectures that are still influential in the cause of freedom. He calmly risked arrest and trial for treason by housing and aiding escaped slaves on the way to Canada. And the words he wrote, then and later, have been freeing slaves—black and white—ever since.

And it is interesting to recall in passing that both of these strange men, the founder of the Ramakrishna Order and the sometime hermit of Walden Pond both exerted in different ways a powerful influence on Gandhi.

Swami Vivekananda and Thoreau were both without guile. The Swami’s fellow disciple Swami Brahmananda used to teach his disciples always to tell the truth, but never to tell a harsh truth. But the truth with Swamiji could be very harsh however much deserved it might be. When Aswini Kumar Datta (a saintly patriot of Bengal) reproached Vivekananda for his retort to Madras brahmins who had called him a sudra: (“If I am a sudra, ye the brahmins of Madras are the pariah of pariahs”), the Swami replied: “I never said I was right. The impudence of these people made me lose my temper, and the words came out. What could I do? But I do not justify them.” Aswini Kumar Datta then replied: “Now I realize why you are a world conqueror and why the Master loved you so much!”

Although a sannyasin and supposedly beyond the need for such creature comforts as tobacco and betel nut, he had no hesitation in asking for these things in the home of a Mahratta gentleman at Belgaum in whose home he was a guest. And although his hosts in the beginning were horrified, he completely disarmed them with his explanation and won them over by his knowledge, coolness in debates, and charm of personality.

Among those who were captivated by Swami Vivekananda’s brilliance and charm was the Maharaja of Mysore. But when the prince asked his guest: “Swamiji, what do you think of my guests?” he was not prepared to hear him say: “Well, I think Your Highness has a very good heart, but you are unfortunately surrounded by courtiers, and courtiers are courtiers everywhere.” And when the prince protested that the Dewan, or head financial minister of the state, was intelligent and trustworthy, the Swami said: “But, Your Highness, a Dewan is one who robs the Maharaja and pays the Political Agent.” Such frankness is not always safe, and the Maharaja changed the subject abruptly.

Thoreau’s frankness could be painful to all he met. In his youth he was not fond of visiting, but could not bring himself to give the conventional reasons for declining invitations, such as that it was not convenient or that he was unable to go. Instead he spoke the truth: “I do not want to go.”

“It cost him nothing to say No,” Emerson wrote in a biographical sketch.

Indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes. It seemed as though his first instinct on hearing a proposition was to controvert it, so impatient was he with the limitations of our daily thought. This habit, of course, is chilling to the social affections; and though the companion would in the end acquit him of malice or untruth, yet it mars conversation. Hence no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless.21

Fine manners were an offense to him as was any affectation. “The finest manners in the world are awkwardness and fatuity when contrasted with a finer intelligence,” he wrote.

They appear but as the fashions of past days,—mere courtliness, small-clothes and kneebuckles … an attitude merely. The vice of manners is that they are continually deserted by the character; they are cast-off clothes or shells, claiming the respect of the living creature. . . . The man who thrusts his manners upon me does as if he were to insist on introducing me to his cabinet of curiosities, when I wish to see himself. Manners are conscious; character is unconscious.22

No college ever offered him a diploma or a professor’s chair, Emerson observed, commenting that perhaps the learned bodies feared the satire of his presence. “Yet so much knowledge of Nature’s secret and genius few others possessed, none in a more large and religious synthesis. For not a particle of respect had he to any man or body of men, but homage solely to the truth itself; and as he discovered everywhere among the doctors some leaning of courtesy, it discredited them.”23

Possessions for their own sake, possessions permitted to become obstacles, were abhorrent to them both. “If a man plunges headlong into foolish luxuries of the world without knowing the truth, he has missed his footing, he cannot reach the goal,” Vivekananda warned. But the Swami interpreted his warning:

We all “understand” that desires are wrong, but what is meant by giving up desires? How could life go on? It would be … suicidal advice, killing desire and the man, too. The solution is this. Not that you should not have property, not that you should not have things which are necessary and things which are even luxuries. Have all that you want, and more, only know the truth and realize it. Wealth does not belong to anybody. Have no idea of proprietorship. You are nobody nor am I, nor anyone else. All belongs to the Lord.24

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” Thoreau declared in Walden and noted in another place that “my greatest skill has been to want but little.” But even Thoreau made allowance for exceptions to his rules.

“I do not,” he explained, “mean to prescribe rules to strong and valiant natures, who will mind their own affairs whether in heaven or hell, and perchance build more magnificently and spend more lavishly than the richest. . . . I do not speak to those who are well-employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well-employed or not. . . .” He spoke, he said, “mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining about the hardness of their lot, of the times, when they might improve them.”

Emerson had noted that the isolation which belonged to Thoreau’s original thinking had detached him from the social religious forms. This, he said, was neither to be censured nor regretted. Aristotle had explained it long before when he said, “One who surpasses his fellow-citizens in virtue is no longer a part of the city. Their law is not for him, since he is a law to himself.”

Aristotle could have been thinking of Vivekananda. The deeply spiritual person is not concerned with outward forms or creature comforts, for his trust is not in things. In the “Song of the Sannyasin,” Vivekananda wrote:

Have thou no home. What home can hold thee, friend?
The sky thy roof, the grass thy bed, and food
What chance may bring; well cooked or ill, judge not.
No food or drink can taint that noble Self
Which knows itself. Like rolling river free
Thou ever be Sannyasin bold! Say—
“Om Tat Sat Om!”

And Thoreau in like mood wrote:

Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures. Let the noon find thee by other lakes and night overtake thee everywhere at home. There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played. Grow old according to thy nature, like these sedges and brakes, which will never become English hay. Let the thunder rumble; what if it threaten the farmers’ crops, that is not its errand to thee. Take shelter under the cloud, while they flee to carts and sheds. Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport. Enjoy the land, but own it not. Through want of enterprise and faith men are what they are, buying and selling, and spending their lives like serfs.25

There was no room for weakness in the gospel taught by Vivekananda any more than there was in that of Thoreau. Each thought positively and preached a gospel of hope, of strength and aspiration. Each in his own way revealed in his life and in his words how the spiritual life works.

“The Vedanta,” Vivekananda said, “recognizes no

sin, it only recognizes error: the greatest error, says Vedanta, is to say that you are weak, that you are a sinner, a miserable creature, and that you have no power. . . . Therefore whoever thinks he is weak is wrong, whoever thinks he is impure is wrong, and is throwing a bad thought into the world. This we must always bear in mind, that in the Vedanta there is no attempt at reconciling the present life, the hypnotized life, this false life that we have assumed with the ideal; but this false life must go, and the real life, which is always existing, must manifest itself, must shine out. No man becomes purer and purer, it is a matter of greater manifestation. The veil drops away, and the native purity of the soul begins to manifest itself. Everything is ours already—infinite purity, freedom, love and power. . . . With the amount of freedom we have we can attain to two hundred ideals in this life, if we will, but we must not degrade the ideal to the actual. One of the most insinuating things comes to us in the shape of persons who apologize for our mistakes and teach us how to make special excuses for all our foolish wants and foolish desires; and we think that their ideal is the only ideal we need have. But it is not so. The Vedanta teaches no such thing. The actual should be reconciled to the ideal, the present life should be made to coincide with the life eternal.26

Towards the end of Walden Thoreau summed up what he had gained from his sojourn at Walden Pond:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.27


1 Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda, p. 5.
2 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. I, Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1906. Biographical Sketch by Emerson.
3 Ibid., Vol. II, p. 4.
4 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. II, 1963, p. 374.
5 Walden, p. 81.
6 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. VI, Letters p. 163.
7 The Complete Works, Vol. II, 1963, p. 380.
8 Walden, pp. 7-9.
9 The Complete Works, Vol. I, 1962, p. 203.
10 Ibid., p. 41.
11 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. I, Journal, pp. 175-191.
12 The Complete Works, Vol. I, 1962, p. 54.
13 Walden, p. 241.
14 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Letter to Harrison Blake, Vol. VI, p. 187
15 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Journal, Vol. VIII, p. 421.
16 Ibid., Letters, Vol. VI, p. 243.
17 The Complete Works, Vol. II, 1963, p. 327.
18 Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna The Great Master, 1955, p. 753.
19 Romain Rolland, The Life of Vivekananda, p. 10.
20 Ibid., p. 26.
21 The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Vol. I.
22 Ibid., Journal, Vol. II, p. 163.
23 Ibid., Vol. I.
24 The Complete Works, Vol. II, 1963, pp. 148, 150.
25 Walden, p. 230.
26 The Complete Works, Vol. II, 1963, pp. 296-97.
27 Walden, p. 356.

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Vivekananda and Thoreau